Sunday, 11 November 2012

Driven:- 2012 JEEP Grand Cherokee

To make the following even vaguely worth reading it needs to be written from an objective point of view. To achieve this I have to temporarily put aside all notions of my absolute hatred, dismissal and outright condemnation of this kind of car; the morbidly obese, leather-lined, "go anywhere" vehicle. There will be no further mention of the futility of a car that can tackle any given face of the Eiger when the most challenging terrain it well ever actually see is the speed-bumps outside Ikea. Not for the next couple of paragraphs, anyway.

Subjectively, Jeeps have been a bit rubbish for quite a few years, really. Yes, come on, it's true. When the "XJ shape" Cherokee burst onto the UK scene in the early 90s it caused a bit of a stir and was deservedly popular, despite having already been on sale in the USA for nine years and, therefore, a tad dated already. It's a bit strange, really, that the allegedly discerning British populace seemed not to notice, for the things sold very well in both rapid 4.0 litre and, er, relaxed 2.5 flavours. 

The XJ Cherokee was also, for an American machine, quite a compact little piece. For that reason the first of the Grand Cherokees turned wheel on UK soil a little while later to capture a slice of the Range Rover market. While nothing like as popular as the regular Cherokee, it had its share of admirers who loved it for its titanic V8 engine choices.

That was eighteen years ago. Since then Chrysler have pumped out seemingly endless permutations along the Cherokee theme and attempted to market them to an increasingly unbothered British market; three generations of Cherokee or Grand Cherokee as well as the seven seater Commander. For now, though; the UK range consists the Grand Cherokee, the little Compass and the slightly agricultural Wrangler.

Without too much beating about the bush, I really like this car / truck / bungalow. At first acquaintance I was rather worried that I'd rattle around inside it like a ball bearing in a dustbin, and really not come away any richer for the experience.  Not too far down the road I grew accustomed to its massive bulk and couldn't help enjoy sitting at the same altitude as all the Transit drivers with their phones glued to their ears.

This one came issued with the 3.0 CRD, a Fiat / VM Mottori V6 sitting behind that imposing snout. It's a pleasant sounding unit, easily meeting the refinement standards of the Mercedes unit of the same size.  The only peculiarity of its sonic behaviour, I found, was when you come to switch it off whereupon it doesn't just switch off and stall to a halt, instead it fades out like when a record producer cant decide how to finish a track. 

In this Overland S specification, it comes fully loaded with everything you could reasonably want in a car and quite a lot besides. The rear pews are heated, the front are heated and cooled, there's a vast (optional) sunroof, electric everybloodything and a ridiculous neon-lit double cupholder. The climate-control system is very effective (although my rear-seat guests complained of a cold draught from below the front seats that we couldn't get rid of no matter what combinations of buttons we pressed). There's also a big hard-disc music server / GPS unit.

This is the worst feature of the entire car. It works OK in as much as it does everything it claims to do. The problems are thus:- The Sat-Nav display and guidance is, though clear, basic and dated in the extreme with graphics that a five-year old TomTom would giggle at. Furthermore, using a touch-screen interface as it does, interacting with it is thoroughly unintuitive. Trying to use it on the move is a non-starter; you look in your peripheral vision for a symbol that looks familiar and it inevitably does something totally different to what you'd expect. Also, every other Sat-Nav I've ever used says "Stop Guidance" or something to that effect, yet the Jeep asks if I'd like it to "End Routing".  When you're not familiar with a system it's nice at least to be able to recognise some of the commands. A shame that the Jeep seems so determined to have its own way.

If it isn't a terribly good GPS system, it's a worse entertainment centre. Firstly; why no DAB? Analogue radio these days in most parts of the UK broadcast precisely zero stations worth listening to. I ended up putting the system on Classic FM just to escape from having Rhianna crammed down my throat of every commercial station. And with advertising being so heavy on FM, I can now tell you all sorts of things about low-cost house contents insurance and the best places to eat in the Brighton and Hove area.

When you've accepted that you're stuck with FM, actually tuning stuff in is a bastard in itself. On the radio display there is nothing obvious you can press to make it seek in either direction. There's a manual tuning option which seems to adjust the frequency in one millionth of a hz increments, but nothing jumps out at you that says "tune upwards or scan downwards" or whatever. You can dial frequencies in directly, though, so you can tune by entering random numbers. Could be a fun travel game.

Finally, the steering wheel buttons for the stereo frustrate simply because there doesn't seem to be anything coming up on any of the information displays when you press something, so it's easy enough to press something, lose whatever it was you were listening to and have no idea whatsoever how to get it back. You then have to go back into that infuriating touch-screen which is very distracting, and thus you'll probably get arrested or have a violent, explosive crash.

Helping to avoid you crash, though, is the Adaptive Cruise control. This is a radar-assistance which works in conjunction with the cruise control, monitoring your distance from the car in front and adjusting your speed to ensure a constant gap. As a system I can honestly say I like it more than similar systems I have tried in both Mercedes and BMW cars,  when you come up behind something travelling much slower than you it doesn't slam on the brakes quite as abruptly as with the Germans. That said; generally, it's still far too heavy handed. 

Say you're on a three lane motorway. you're doing 75 on Adaptive Cruise on the inside lane, you're coming up behind someone doing 68 and the outside lane is empty. You want to pass behind the guy in the middle lane, pass him to the right and pull back in in front of him. Simple manoeuvre. The problem happens as soon as you pull out when the Jeep senses the slower vehicle approaching and will suddenly shit itself and think "WE'RE GOING TO CRASH!" and hit the brakes, only to suddenly change its mind once the coast is clear and you're in the outside lane. It's all rather clumsy.

It's also potentially dangerous if not deactivated when appropriate, as I found out when pulling off into a motorway service area. I had the Cruise set to 75, but had been following a group of lorries on the inside lane for the past half mile, the Active Cruise pegging me back to match their pace. The danger came when the exit for the services arrived, I pulled left and, sensing the new, open lane and thinking the slower traffic had cleared, the Electronic Brain immediately tried to accelerate me back to my 75mph cruise. This was with a 90 degree bend about a hundred yards ahead of me.

The other limitation when comparing the Jeep Active Cruise with the German offerings is that it can't follow the vehicle in front down to a full stop. It seems to go as far as it can with engine braking and downchanges but it will eventually run out of ideas, panic, then beep loudly and shout "BRAKE!!" on the dashboard display. Perhaps it should say BRACE! It's a bit too Nannying, to be honest, the way that it feels the need to nudge you and remind you of the wisdom of braking. I rather think that a Radar Cruise Control system ought to be able to handle the entire business of starting and stopping, or not bother at all.

Also weird is the park assistance. BMW and Mercedes each have a terrific parking solution; Park Distance Control and Parktronic respectively. Jeep offer an Object Avoidance system; and it's a bit shit. Close quarters in a car park, gently edging forward a beep cometh from the dashboard and it tells you "object detected". Smashing, say you. But there's nothing much to tell you what that object is, nor its relative actual distance from the car. The display offers a distance readout of one, two or three wavy lines... which means what? How about just a simple acoustic warning of varying frequency just like every system has had since the whole idea was conceived in the 90s? not in Jeepland.

There are so many bits of the Grand Cherokee that give the impression that Jeep hasn't shown any interest whatsoever in how the rest of the world has developed over the last decade or so, not only in the way their hi-tech features operate but in cosmetic details, too.  The centre console is dominated by  a vast, gear selector, no doubt designed to look tough and purposeful, but unfortunately coming over as clunky, clumsy and crass. There's also the mystifying application of fake carbon fibre in the decor; it's hard to imagine a less appropriate application of this ultra-light, super stiff  wonder-material of the future than in this big, floppy look-at-me-mobile.

Old-school Americana makes a showing, too, in the guise of an infinitely annoying pump-to-release parking brake, which could for all I know be the same as in a Willys Jeep from 1941. It's not only irksome but it also gets in the way of my pedal habit where by in a two-pedal car I tend to use one foot per pedal, Go-Kart style.

Packaging wise there's more than enough interior space, though the boot seems rather limited in size once you've ascended the heights required to reach it. I assume there's some heavyweight rock-crawling machinery beneath that high floor; if not then something has gone badly wrong at the design stage. The electric tailgate is nice, but why have the opener button on the ceiling next to the sunroof controls? Took me bloody ages to find that.

Other minor frustrations were the high beam assist, which I still don't see any point in whatsoever; it's slow to react so you frequently get flashed by blinded oncoming traffic, and it then refuses to let you override it when it dips the beam for oncoming houses, streetlamps, shiny road signs etc. Also; the key-fob is annoying, with the remote locking buttons at the top extreme of the fob and then about eight spare, vacant unused  identical feeling buttons that prevent you from navigating around it by feel. And the seat adjustment controls; which ape those on the Mercedes ML in terms of design and function; feel Tupperware-cheap and are springy and vague in operation. And how do you listen to the radio with the ignition off? Idunno.

Best concentrate on the good stuff; and what there is that's good is genuinely, properly good. As said, the Fiat /VM Multijet diesel vomits out 247hp and feels torquier than a torque-fest in torque-street USA. Properly sired, the Jeep explodes off the line and getting ahead of lesser traffic is a cinch, but after that initial violence it soon feels a bit like it's fighting against its own bulk. Acceleration then feels more akin to a fast ship, rather than a quick car.  The low-tech 5-speed auto box has a manual mode, but I'd only use that off road or when descending hills, to be honest. Even with the terrain response dial switched to "Sport" this is definitively, emphatically, not a sporting machine. The 29mpg I managed to eke out of it on a less than demanding trip from Weybridge to Brighton tells a pretty revealing story.

Throw it into a corner and you quickly learn not to ever, ever do that again. To be fair to it the grip level is very high and the steering likes to keep itself reasonably abreast of what's going on. Pitch and wallow are reasonably well contained but body roll is pronounced. The ride, somehow, is on the stiff side, possibly due in part to the choice of tyre wrapping those big, showy, Footballer-Friendly wheels (which still, somehow manage to look a little lost in those viaduct-style wheelarches).

The price tag of this whole, glitzy, silly shooting match is £46,865, an immense quantity of money.

And yet, I like it. I like the way it looks; with essence of Hummer to the front grille, macho posture, high-slung glass area, barely a curve anywhere to be seen. There's no retro-ness, no pastiche of Jeeps gone by, and no imitation of Range Rover, Mercedes or any of the hundred other 4x4 heavy-hitters.

Somehow, this big, slightly clunky and embarrassing machine has an honesty about it that you can't help but grow fond of. It wears its flaws on its sleeve where they become characteristics and foibles rather than the many annoying faults and shortcomings that blight an equivalently specified (and therefore £80,000) Mercedes-Benz GL. Suddenly, in the light of the gross overpricing of the competition, The Grand Cherokee looks like a damned sensible proposition.

It's probably the worst new car I've ever really, really liked.